A friend of God

A friend of God

Sermon for the sixth Sunday in Easter
John 15:9-17

Contrary to what Facebook would have us believe, you can only sustain so many friendships. When I preached on this text from John 15 back in 2009, I made the observation that according to Facebook I had 137 friends. That number has now risen to 524, a good many of whom I’ve never even met. I did a little checking up on the numbers, and found that Larry Campbell has 439 friends; he’s evidently a bit more discriminating in his choices than me. Because they both use Facebook to get out word on their concerts and music releases, Jaylene Johnson has 1715, and Steve Bell has surpassed the 5000 marker, the point at which Facebook stops counting.

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On the night of his arrest when Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “I do not call you servants any longer… I have called you friends,” he clearly had something rather more substantial in view. Modernity has thinned the very idea of friendship, in a way that would have startled earlier ages. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his 1960 book The Four Loves, “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”

Lewis himself knew great friendships. During his army training in 1917, he befriended another young recruit named “Paddy” Moore with whom he made a pact that if either were killed in battle the survivor would take responsibility for the deceased friend’s family. Moore was killed in action in 1918, and Lewis held to that promise, caring for Paddy Moore’s mother right through to her death in 1951. Though at the time he was not a Christian—in fact the experience of the war confirmed Lewis in his atheism—Jesus’ words about friendship would have had deep resonance: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And not just in a critical moment in the trenches of war, but for the long haul; a pact had been made to his friend, and if it took over thirty years to fulfill, so be it.

In our day we have become quite accustomed to expecting that marriage partners should be—must be—the greatest of friends, with one currently popular wedding text reading, “This day I will marry my best friend, the one I laugh with, live for, dream with, love.” Such an expectation, though, would have been almost shocking to Lewis’s generation, which had no such expectations of married life. Frankly, I do think that we can freight our marriages terribly when we expect our spouses to fill absolutely every role, sharing every interest and dream, meeting every need. I, for instance, have been deeply formed by the music of John Coltrane and have a strong taste for some rather odd and angular jazz music. Any number of times I’ll have music playing on the stereo, and Catherine will look over at me and ask, “What are we listening to?”, which is code for “this is a bit too odd for me…” But that’s okay, because I’ve got lots of other music I can put on the stereo, and I’ve got a friend or two with whom I can share actually share the angular stuff. I don’t need Catherine to like everything I like, any more than she needs me to conform to each and every one of her interests, tastes, ideas. But I had to learn that over the years of life together.

In his remarkable treatise on friendship, the 12th Century Cistercian monk Aelred offered some reflection on how the creation story from Genesis 2 might inform our thinking on friendship: “[God] said: ‘It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a helper like unto himself.’ It was from no similar, nor even from the same, material that divine Might formed this help mate, but as a clearer inspiration to charity and friendship God produced the woman from the very substance of the man.” Now I know what some of you are thinking; that by using the words “helper” and “help mate,” and by emphasizing that the story says that the woman came from “the very substance of the man” this 12th century monk is about to emphasize how women were created to be secondary. But listen to what Aelred writes next: “How beautiful it is that the second human being was taken from the side of the first, so that nature might teach that human beings are equal… and that there is in human affairs neither a superior nor an inferior, a characteristic of true friendship. Hence, nature from the very beginning implanted the desire for friendship and charity in the heart of the human…”

What Aelred has done here is to highlight two critical things about friendship. Firstly, that wired into our very DNA—he’d have not a clue as to what that phrase means—that in the very heart or nature of the human there is what he calls “the desire for friendship and charity.” We are built for community, we are built for relationship and specifically for friendship. Secondly, Aelred insists that true friendship is characterized by there being “neither a superior nor an inferior,” which not only says some things about our marriages, it also brings us to the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words to his disciples. They are disciples of a master—they have walked in a posture as his students and servants. But now, he says, I claim you as my friends, and I do that because “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” I hold nothing back; I am sharing freely and completely all that I am and all that I have. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” which is less a condition for being accepted and more the basic term for how life is now to be lived. It is how Jesus lived—laying down his life for his friends—and so it is how his friends are to live.

Again, contrary to what Facebook would have us believe, we can only sustain so many friendships of that kind of depth. Yes, we are mandated to love one another and to meet “the least of these my people” with mercy, compassion, and love. Absolutely. But friendships of the committed depth that inspire you to lay down your life for the other? The sort of friendship C.S. Lewis had with Paddy Moore? Probably only a handful over the course of our lives.

Jesus, though, in turning to his disciples and claiming them as friends has also befriended us, in numbers greater than even Facebook can begin to contemplate. I used to be quite dismissive of that old hymn, “What a Friend we have in Jesus,” seeing it as a rather sentimental piece of 19th Century piety. But in light of this gospel text, I’ve had to seriously reconsider that judgment. Written by Joseph Scriven in 1855, it was never actually intended to be a hymn. Scriven had emigrated from Ireland to Canada, and had received word that his mother was gravely ill. The text that has become such a well-known hymn were his words of comfort to his mother as she faced her own death.

What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

“Can we find a friend so faithful,” Scriven wrote in the second verse, “who will all our sorrows share?” Occasionally, yes; yes we can a friend that faithful. Or at least we should be able to do so, if we have taken seriously the call to befriend one another in the way we were first befriended by Christ. “Jesus knows our every weakness,” Scriven continues. And guess what? You can take even those things—the stumblings and the sins and the fears and the wounds—you can take even those “to the Lord in prayer.” You can, in short, tell the truth of your life to this Christ, and he will not unfriend you, no matter how messy you’ve become.

But he might just say—as all good friends should say—now get back up, start putting one foot in front of the other, and keep making your way. And you can do it, because you’re not going to have to do it alone. You are counted among his friends, and as Gregory of Nyssa wrote the 4th Century, “we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing truly worthwhile.”

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